< China Vision


Friday, June 20, 2008

This is On the Media. I'm Brooke Gladstone, watching images of China flicker and strobe. In Shanghai it's all in the skyline, colonial stones, soaring steel spires, sagging tenements, cascades of light.

I'm in the French Concession with the friends of our translator, Ed. They're all 22 or 23. They consume a lot of foreign news, so I asked them what they think of China's image in the West.
There is picture, that's funny. I — maybe I got it from website of Time. I forget. But the news is about to say in New York they make some demonstration. They say Tibet should be free. But, you know, you Americans still have war with Iraq, and here in Shanghai we don't get a sign that Iraq should be — what, what, what. We don't do that.

And so, I have no comment on politics. But I think this is the thing between China or Tibet or our government or something. And we don't talk about U.S.A. and Iraq in that way.

And talking about China's image globally, I think China is a great kid, a great child, because we have only 50 years to found the country and America maybe several hundred years, and Europe, even longer. I think many children make faults. We do something maybe not that right or wrong, but we are growing, I want to say.

So you should be maybe more forgiveful and friendly to us, I want to say.
I know a lot of what we are saying sounds very brainwashed and nationalistic, but actually we know very well what we are talking about. And we know there is something with China that's not so good. But you should also know that if you compared today China with 50 years ago, it's already much, much, much better.

So give China more time and we have a better China for everybody.
I think that most foreign people, in their mind, they think Chinese is a country full of bicycle and maybe every person, every person can have Chinese kung fu
maybe some tai chi.
Chopsticks and table tennis.

Yeah, and —
That's China. [LAUGHS]
So why, why they always think Chinese like this? I think because they think the country made by this kind of people is less a threat to them.

Which kind of film is popular in the Western country? There are two, I think. One, there's Chinese kung fu, and the other is something of the old style city of China, the —
You mean, Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon?
Yeah. It's about Chinese kung fu, and other is about something not very modern place of China. So they are very popular, because the Western people want China to be like this. They think if only China is like this, they can have their superior position in the world.
So how to rectify China's image problem? Scott Kronick presides over a huge citadel of hipness in Beijing. Thirteen years ago, he set up the first Western ad agency in China, Ogilvy.

Recently, in the wake of scandals over tainted toys and pet food, he was asked for some advice on how to burnish Brand China. Here's what he told them.
The first thing to do when you're trying to communicate to the outside world is to understand what it is that people are saying about you. So we've shown them everything, all the very negative press from all over the world. So you've got to understand that there are people that want some answers to this.

The second answer is don't blame the foreign press and the way in which the foreign press reports on these things, because nobody in the outside world's going to care.

Third, don't make any guarantees. Nobody expects you to make a 100 percent guarantee on things. And don't necessarily need to be defensive, but more talk about what you're doing, 'cause they took a number of steps to try to rectify the situation, but they were getting no love for it.
So did they get love?
I think it's about understanding. When I moved here, people asked me do I go to work on a rickshaw, are people wearing Mao jackets. And it's a different China. There's an establishment here that wants to communicate about the progress that's been made.
More openness, more conversation - that was Kronick's advice. Publisher and blogger Hong Huang leans more toward the visual.
In fact, she doesn't just lean towards it. She lives in it, or above it, in 798, a complex of converted warehouses and cafes, a mecca of Chinese contemporary art.

The gallery that features student work seems to vibrate with a sinister kind of magic, with its giant winged sculptures, revolving dancers and satirical takes on classical tropes. In fact, Hong Huang thinks that Brand China can get a leg up by speaking the language of art, over the heads of the Chinese authorities, to the West.

There are just certain symbols I think a lot of artists are very clever with that they know Westerners would get it and not necessarily a Chinese.
Another resident of 798 is the artist Zhao Bandi. For ten years he's made a good living, and better enemies, by playing fast and loose with a stuffed panda.

Now, this is a symbol the authorities do understand. The panda has long been China's best ambassador, beginning in 1957 with its first foreign posting to the Soviet Union. Its cuddly cuteness causes a chemical reaction that overwhelms the world with something like love.

Just about every nation wants one, but only China's got 'em — until Bandi.
As you know, the panda is a public resource. Just the fact that I kidnapped it, a lot of people can't stand it, that I would kidnap a public icon. Many people attack me, including the government.
Why did you kidnap the panda?
At first, I just thought it was funny because it's a public resource that's only used by the government. Why can't we use it? So I just kidnapped it for fun.
Bandi has pursued this particular obsession for a decade, wearing a toy panda on his back, in posters, on TV shows, and even once standing in court. Earlier this year, he staged a panda fashion show, models in black and white, with panda eyes, dressed up as corrupt politicians, sexy nurses, prostitutes and real estate developers.

The panda is China's best face forward, and Bandi keeps slamming it with a pie.
Ever since they learned of my work through the media, they all said, why, how come you use this panda? They said, you don't have the right to use this panda.
You don't have this right to have — to use the panda.
But there is no law that says I can't be with the panda.
You have liberated the panda for the people.

You could say that.
So he'll keep besmirching the panda. But no matter. China still has another icon up its sleeve, not quite as adorable, but arguably more venerable. I'm, of course, referring to Confucius. Confucius Institutes are springing up all over the world, 36 at last count, but that number is slated to swell to 100 by 2010. Confucius isn't going to do much to modernize China's image but presumably the intention is to sweeten it.
Oh, I think — oh, don't, please, that just so makes me sick. I mean, I just think if they —instead of calling — I mean, calling it Confucius Institute is already just something, because Confucius — I mean, if Mao did anything right, I think Mao was right to destroy Confucius' reputation.
Hong Huang hates Confucius. She says he's only about getting ahead. His calls to study are explicitly about getting jobs in government. His other big piece of advice is to avoid manual labor, if you can. But you probably can't, because Confucius helped set up China's caste system.
And it basically tells you that if you are the son of a blacksmith, you should not aspire to higher stations. I mean, this is so completely against the upward mobility that, you know, every man is created equal and all these basic fundamental pillars in Western value system. And there lies the ultimate clash.

BROOKE GLADSTONE: Jiang Rong thinks so too. He's a novelist. Actually, his magnum opus is a potent piece of agitprop called Wolf Totem. Published in 2004, just published in English, it's a bestseller, second only to Mao's Little Red Book of Quotations, according to the promotional material.
The story is based on his own experience during the Cultural Revolution, when the universities were closed and the students sent off to the hinterlands to shed their bourgeois tendencies.
He opted for Inner Mongolia, where in winter, he notes, "The spit freezes before it hits the ground." He seemed to love the years he spent there, except for the three spent in jail after running afoul of the authorities. But most of all, he loved the brutal, brilliant wolves.
The novel is drenched in the blood of marmots, sheep, horses, of wolves that have been disemboweled, drowned and consumed by thick, sucking swarms of mosquitoes. He saw in the struggle between man and wolf a metaphor for what ails China today.
And his assessment of his own ethnicity, the majority Han Chinese, is as harsh as the Mongolian winter. Jiang Rong, thanks for joining us for tea.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: So let's talk about the wolves. You say that your book details the competing battle strategies of wolves and man, but you also say that the wolf was man's teacher and his savior, as well as his worst enemy in the grassland. It's a complicated portrait, but it almost venerates the wolf as a kind of god.
I did a lot of research on wolves when I was there. Why? Because of the Mongolians' strange attitude towards them. It is different from other nations. On one hand, they would kill them every year. In spring, they would find their lairs and throw the wolf cubs to their death.
But Mongolians also worship the wolves. They would leave out the bodies of their dead for the wolves to eat.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: In Wolf Totem you offer harsh and constant criticism of the Han Chinese. You write that the Han Chinese are weaker than the Western races because the Western nomadic races handed down their vitality and their intelligence to their descendants. Do I have that right?
Yes, it is. The ancestors of Han were a nomadic nation who were very tough but as they came to the land of China, their characteristics changed. Among the four great ancient civilizations, the drainage areas of Yangtze River and Yellow River are the world's biggest farming areas.
But agriculture needs peace. The ruling class found that as long as farmers could plow the field, they would be meek, easy to rule. All the ruling classes in Chinese history understood this. And over thousands of years, the Han personality turned meek as sheep.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: You've been criticized for equating peacefulness with sheepishness, and the book has also been accused of being both racist and, I think, crypto fascist. What do you think?
I don't agree. The distinction is not between good and bad, but between weak and tough. I don't mean China is a bad nation. I mean that its character is weak. It's proved by thousands of years of history. Otherwise, China would not have been ruled by nomadic minorities for so long, or colonial and semi colonial society more recently.
That's why I have to criticize the personality of Chinese people. Chinese people only demand a full stomach and a peaceful life, not democracy and freedom. Their personality is too weak. The Western spirit that pursues freedom and democracy is scarce in Chinese people.
I think wolves possess what is lacking in the Chinese personality.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: So, you picked this moment, and you haven't been punished. In fact, this book is probably making you rich. Does that mean things are a lot better now?
My situation is better than before, but I dare not to be too careless. Today there are a lot of people who are in favor of this book, but in the past five years there also had been many who oppose it. Generally, there are four types of people who oppose it. The first is the traditional left. They want the government to ban this book. They say it's a totally bourgeois novel, anti party and anti society.
The second type is the new and contemporary left. They believe that the book is preaching Social Darwinism, the law of the jungle. For them, the book is too hard on the weak and should be banned.
The third type are followers of traditional Confucianism. They say that the book is the enemy of Confucianism, the core concept of which is to obey without any doubt. So they oppose this book most fiercely. They regard China as extremely great, with an extremely long history. If you criticize the weak points of China and depict Chinese as sheep, they will regard you as a traitor.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: What we've read is that Wolf Totem has generated a slew of fake sequels and copycats. Apparently, Peter Jackson has bought the rights to make a movie, and there's a Japanese manga version that's coming out. Does all of this please you?
I want to make it, as well as a movie, but no final decision has been made. I'm very pleased that the book has stirred such a strong response in the society and in the West.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: Well, then, why didn't you want to promote your book when it first became a publishing phenomenon? Didn't you want to spread the message?
At that time, I could not. Six months after publishing this book, many people didn't know who I was because I was afraid the book would be banned as soon as it was published. It would be too terrible. I'd spent decades writing it. At the time when my book was published, many other books were banned.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: Okay, so if you have a country of sheep, where are your wolves going to come from?
Many young people have said on the Internet that the wolf totem is their totem. Today, young people attach great importance to pursuing the wolf's characteristics, a kind of free, independent and competitive personality.
Let me add one point. The rise of the wolf in Chinese young people won't be a menace to the world. It will only make Chinese society truly free and democratic and bring it in into international mainstream.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: Lu Jiamin, thank you very much.
JIANG RONG: Thank you very much.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: Wolf Totem is a Chinese publishing phenomenon and the ultimate in self criticism. True, it doesn't question the legitimacy of the government, per se, but it condemns it, and the Chinese people, without qualification. Even Jiang Rong is surprised he's still walking around, doing interviews, no less.
Newspapers close, websites are blocked, dissidents are imprisoned. The muscle still twitches, but the passion seems to be draining out of the enterprise.
During our visit, a picture of the annual Tiananmen Square commemoration in Hong Kong appeared for the first time in a mainland paper. It was called an earthquake vigil, but everyone knew what it was.
I came here to see if Brand China squares with the reality, but the more I saw, the less I knew. The Chinese we spoke to say they know they're not free, but they also say, look where we're going, look where we've been. Just keep looking.
That's it for this week's show. On the Media was produced by Megan Ryan, Jamie York, Mike Vuolo, Mark Phillips, Nazanin Rafsanjani and Nadia Zonis.
We had technical direction from Jennifer Munson and more engineering help from Zach Marsh. Our webmaster is Amy Pearl.
Katya Rogers is our senior producer and John Keefe our executive producer. Bassist/composer Ben Allison wrote our theme. You can listen to the program and find free transcripts, mp3 downloads and our podcast at onthemedia.org. Check out our China blog there. You can email us at onthemedia@wync.org.
This is On the Media from WNYC. Bob Garfield will be back in two weeks. I'm Brooke Gladstone.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: You guys are just incredibly great. And I feel so lucky to have had you guys here. I want to ask Megan or Jamie if you — if there's something else you want me to get at.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: In which case I think we should really start drinking heavily.
CHINESE WOMAN: We have some very good —